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Stags leap over Protectors to the top


Ahmad Latiff's goal not only defeated the Protectors, but also revived the Stags’ title ambitions. (Photo: SSC)
 
Tampines Rovers Football Club (FC) has stretched the Singapore League (S.League) title race to the last day with a 1-0 victory over arch rival Home United at the packed Tampines Stadium last night.
 
Traditional S.League powerhouse Tampines has been starved of silverware since 2006. However, an Ahmad Latiff missile after 62 minutes did not only defeat the Protectors, but also revived the Stags’ title ambitions.
 
The win propelled Tampines to the top of the table with 75 points and pushed Home down to the second spot with a mere point behind.
 
With all the makings of a classic, the two clubs began the match brightly with both teams hoping for a win to bring them closer to the coveted title.
 
With the home ground advantage, Tampines got off to a flying start, firing numerous shots on all cylinders in the opening 15 minutes of play.
 
Tampines continued to pile pressure on the unusually ‘quiet’ Protectors and almost opened the scoring with Juffri Taha’s header from a corner on the 21st minute.
 
Minutes later, Home United started to get their head in the game but missed a opportunity to take the lead when winger Sheriff-El Masri sent his shot inches away from goal.
 
Tampines Rovers’ veteran striker, Aleksandar Duric missed an absolute sitter in the 38th minute when he blasted his shot, an Imran Sahib’s cross from the right wing, over the bar.
 
With both teams unable to break the deadlock, the first half ended goalless.
 
When the game resumed, Home United Coach Lee Lim Saeng made some tactical changes to bolster his team’s offense by replacing Firduas Idros with Yasir Hanap. Former Tampines striker, Qiu Li checked in for Masrezwan soon after.
 
Within minutes from the restart, Tampines almost drew first blood in the 49th minute when a low cross was toe poked towards goal by Protectors’ defender Valery Hiek but the ever alert Home United custodian Lionel Lewis calmly collected the loose ball.
 
Knowing that nothing less than a victory would resurrect their title ambition, Stags’ Coach Steven Tan then made his own change at the hour mark when he introduced the nippy winger Jamil Ali in place of Firdaus Kasman.
 
Jamil took only two minutes to prove his worth when his intelligent back flick from a corner found dynamic midfielder, Ahmad Latiff. He then unleashed a screamer, which sailed past a sea of Home United defenders and the goalkeeper to nestle in the back of the net.
 
The strike drew frenetic celebrations from the goal scorer, who took of his jersey, threw it into the stands and screamed for joy. He obtained a yellow card in the process but acknowledged it with a smile and bowed to his beloved yellow-clad supporters who went wild upon that goal.
 
In the 71st minute, Home then thought they had equalized when Hanapi scored inside the box but it was ruled out by the linesman who had already flagged for offside.
 
Knowing that a defeat comes with grave consequences, Home United went all out in search for an equaliser in the final ten minutes.
Desperate attempts to unlock the Stags’ defence failed repetitively as Tampines’ defensive general, Mustafic Fahrudin defended heroically in the dying minutes, to see out all crosses and shots.
 
After four minutes of injury time, the final whistle sent the Home players slumping to the ground on their knees while jubilant scenes erupted amongst the Tampines players and staff, who are now in control of their title destiny.
 
Coach Steven admitted that he was relieved after the final whistle and knows that a positive result in their last league fixture would see them crowned as champions after five years.
 
He said, “The fate is in our hands now and it is up to us to win the title. The players showed the hunger and desire and they fought for every ball and I told them at half-time if we keep working hard, we will get chances to score."
 
His counterpart, Home United Coach, Lee could not hide his anguish at the final whistle but revealed that he wanted his players to zone out their disappointment.
 
"I hope the players are not thinking about the match and the lost and that they are resting well," he said.
 
"We will talk about the match on Thursday," added Coach Lee.
 
With just a single league game to go, the fight for the league championship will go right down to the wire as Tampines face off with Balestier Khalsa at Toa Payoh in their decisive fixture while Home tackle Geylang United in their deciding league tie at Bishan on Sunday.